Stephen Lanz Lavasseur says not a lot has changed since the Capital City Riders were founded in Madison in 1968.
Lavasseur, a 69-year-old retired truck driver who goes by the nickname Lava, is one of just five remaining active original members of the C.C. Riders motorcycle club. He describes the Riders not as an “outlaw club” but rather a group united around a common interest.
“It was just a bunch of guys who wanted to go riding,” Lavasseur said of the club’s beginnings on Madison’s east side in the late 1960s. “We just have a good time. It really hasn’t changed too much.”
Despite the aging group of original members — they range anywhere from 68 to 75-years-old — there are about 60 current members, some in their mid-20s and early 30s. The club has had more than 250 members in its 52 years in Madison, according to Lavasseur, who added that younger guys tend to “come and go.”
Most of the members ride Harley Davidson motorcycles, though there are guys with BMW and Yamaha bikes. Lavasseur still rides the same 1967 Harley that he bought in 1969. A few of the other Riders own a motorcycle shop — “They keep my bike on the road,” he said.
Lavasseur described the club members as working class people, adding that “most of our guys are your nine-to-five laborers.” There are truck drivers, mechanics and small business owners.
New Riders tend to either be family of past members or people the club meets at events or on rides. Only men can join the club, though many of the guys have wives and girlfriends who hang around.
One of the newer members — he goes by Dutch — joined the Riders about six years ago, shortly after coming to Madison from Arizona. After making an offhand comment about a Harley at a motorcycle show to someone who turned out to be a Rider, he was invited to the clubhouse to meet the members. He was a prospect — someone intending to join the club — for six months before he was accepted as a full member. He’s been a Rider ever since.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Dutch said. “These guys are my brothers.”
The C.C. Riders started as a motorcycle shop on the corner of Atwood Avenue and Division Street on the east side. Identical twins Robert and Richard Smith owned Smith Cycle Service, which served as a “hub” for the early Riders.
“We took a lot of young men off the street and let them work for us,” said Richard Smith, now 77 and living in northern Wisconsin. “They would start working at the bottom of the totem pole and maybe end up getting a bike. It was glamorous for a young man.”
The club officially formed in 1968 and eventually moved to the corner of South Paterson and Williamson streets, behind what is now The Wisco bar. The Riders organized weekly Sunday rides and tended to hang out at the Anchor Inn on Atwood Avenue, which has since closed. Otherwise, they called Williamson Street their home.
“(They were) pretty much at the clubhouse,” said Sharon Kilfoy, director of the Williamson Street Art Center and neighborhood historian who has lived in the area since 1970.
Kilfoy said it was not uncommon to see motorcycles lining South Paterson Street. But she stressed that it was not an “over-the-top” or obnoxious presence.
In fact, she said the neighborhood felt protected by the Riders. Kilfoy used to work at the old emergency child care Respite Center on Williamson Street near the Riders’ clubhouse. She said the workers knew they could go to the Riders if they ever needed help.
“I certainly didn’t feel as if their presence in any way made me fearful,” Kilfoy said. “They were seen more as community allies, community advocates, community protectors. It seems like that was the prevailing sentiment.”
Former alderwoman and longtime Williamson Street resident Judy Olson agreed. Olson said the Riders’ presence made the Marquette Neighborhood “perhaps a little more secure.”
She noted a time in which a driver side-swiped a parked car and continued to drive. A Rider attempted to chase the driver down and then informed the owner of the damaged car of what happened. Another time, Olson lost her cat. A Rider helped her find it.
“They looked out for the people they considered to be their neighbors,” she said.
In the community
Richard Smith was known as an eccentric character and a community activist in the neighborhood. According to Smith’s friends, it was just as likely you’d find him wearing a ballet tutu at the Willy Street Fair — an event he helped start — as his Rider colors.
Kilfoy described him as a good neighbor with a “real commanding presence.”
At one point in the late 1970s, Taco John’s started to put up a restaurant on the corner of Williamson and South Brearly streets. After consistent vandalism, the chain left the area. Smith bought the land, planted trees and donated it to the neighborhood. It is now the Willy Street Park.
Smith is perhaps most well-known for his organization of Madison’s helmet law protests in the late 1970s. Smith and the Riders led bikers from across the state in a number of protests around the Capitol. Some residents estimated there were at one point 60,000 motorcyclists who participated. A Madison Press Connection article from 1977 claimed one such demonstration from the same year included 35,000 motorcycles.
“We organized a hell of a lot of people,” Smith said of the protests. He explained that whenever legislation he was interested in had a public hearing, he and the Riders would show up in force. “I knew how to change laws.”
Wisconsin eventually repealed its universal helmet law for motorcyclists in 1978. Now, only people under the age of 18 and those with an instructional permit are required to wear helmets.
But not everything for the C.C. Riders was community activism and searching for lost cats.
In the early 1980s, members of the Washington-based Ghost Riders motorcycle club came to town. The Ghost Riders, an outlaw club and one of the few “one-percenter” clubs who live outside the law and tend to be associated with drug dealing and gun running, sought to establish a chapter in Madison.
In 1985, the national president of the Ghost Riders and two other club members were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a 1983 incident in which they killed a woman when they burned down a tavern just five miles southeast of Madison.
Williamson Street community members attributed the Ghost Riders’ disappearance from the area both to the fire and the efforts of the C.C. Riders.
Lavasseur acknowledged the Ghost Riders’ presence at the time but declined to comment on their interactions with the club.
“They thought they’d start up a club around here, and it didn’t work too well,” Lavasseur said. “We just stood up for ourselves. When you stand up for yourself, you don’t usually have a problem.”
There was another incident in the mid-1990s involving the notorious outlaw motorcycle club the Hells Angels. A disgruntled former C.C. Rider-turned-Hells Angel crashed a Rider clubhouse party and pulled out a knife. A Rider took the knife away, stabbing the Hells Angel in the process.
“(The Angel) thought he was a tough guy, and he went against a bigger tough guy who showed him what was right,” Lavasseur recalled. “If you pull out a knife, you better be able to do something about it.”
The riders and the law
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said there has been an increased presence of one-percenter motorcycle clubs in the area over the last 20 years. He noted multiple times in which clubs like The Outlaws and the Hells Angels tried to set up clubhouses in Dane County and force the C.C. Riders out.
“I’d like nothing better than for everybody to get along, but that is not historically what occurs when these clubs move in,” Mahoney said. “We’re mindful of their presence and watch for them to see what they’re up to.”
Mahoney said much of this awareness comes from communication with the Riders. He stressed that their interactions are not like that of an informant but rather an effort to keep dangerous groups out of the area.
“(The Riders) are in the motorcycle culture more than I am, and (I need) to be aware of what’s occurring,” Mahoney said. “It’s wondering what they are hearing and seeing in relation to what we are seeing and hearing.”
Mahoney also noted instances in the 1980s when Riders helped police at various festivals or city-wide events. He said there were times when club members either helped deputies break up fights or broke them up themselves so law enforcement didn’t get involved.
“I think they are a benefit to our community,” he said. “They have been seen as the kind of eyes and ears of the communities in which they have had clubhouses.”
Despite the generally amiable relationship, the Riders have had their own run-ins with the law.
Mahoney referenced an unresolved shooting about 20 years ago in which some of the Riders were suspects. He said the incident “caused a strife in some of the relationships” but added that that is normal when an organization is being looked into by law enforcement.
He also mentioned incidences of drug dealing involving Riders. He called these problems anomalies and noted that some of these individuals were kicked out of the club by Rider leadership.
“I’d be very suspect if that was ever condoned by the organization,” Mahoney said of drug dealing. “For the most part, the majority of their members I think are productive community members. I don’t consider them a criminal element whatsoever.”
After the Smith brothers moved out of town in the late 1970s, a new Rider took over.
Bill “Tiny” Alexander is described by Riders and community members as “larger-than-life.” He was a two-time Rider president, a graduate of Madison Area Technical College’s culinary program and was known for telling it how it was.
“He always had you laughing, and when he walked in the room, he was a presence,” Lavasseur said of Tiny, who was bigger than most other men. “He was it. He was always helping people, always doing things — just a remarkable person.”
Tiny eventually bought The Wisco bar in 1989. After getting married and having his first child in 1990, he started to focus more of his time on family. In the mid-1990s, after a few drunken incidents involving club members, Tiny told the Riders they had to move out of the area.
“(The Riders’) presence here was not enough to support the bar, but their presence was enough to make other people afraid to come in,” said Holly Alexander, Tiny’s wife and the current owner of The Wisco. “There came a point where he felt that he was not going to be successful with them in his backyard.”
Despite Tiny’s separation from the club, the Riders didn’t forget about him or his family when he died of a heart attack in April 2015.
“He wasn’t gone 24 hours and the president at the time was on the phone with me saying: ‘What do you need? What can we do?’” said Alexander, who opened Tiny’s Tap House in the old Rider clubhouse next to The Wisco in April 2019.
Lavasseur called getting pushed out of Williamson Street “probably the best thing to happen to us.” It made the club come together and build a new, larger clubhouse farther out on Madison’s east side in 1996. The members built it entirely on their own.
“We had everyone but a plumber,” Lavasseur said.
The Riders are still based in that clubhouse. It has a 40-foot bar made from a piece of an old bowling alley on East Washington Avenue where members used to bowl, two pool tables and a patio that can fit nearly 200 people.
In 2018, for the club’s 50th anniversary, the Riders paid off the clubhouse and burned the mortgage papers.
Just as the early Riders united around the common theme of riding and drinking, the original members gather to talk and drink at the clubhouse every Thursday. They also have meetings three times a month to discuss future parties and charity work.
The Riders hold about three charity events a year. The club is involved with Make-A-Wish Wisconsin and raises about $5,000 a year to send a child diagnosed with a critical illness on the trip of their choosing. They’ve raised more than $70,000 for Make-A-Wish and have funded more than nine trips. This past August, the group raised money to send a boy to California to learn about vikings.
They also hold a comedy night once a year. Proceeds from the event go to support Second Harvest Foodbank.
As the original Riders get older, they prepare the next generation of Riders to take over by teaching them about the past.
“We’re real big on history,” Lavasseur said, noting that the club begins every meeting by reading the names of deceased Riders.
Many of the members have patches on their cuts — what bikers call their leather vests — recognizing deceased Riders. The clubhouse is full of photographs and memorials to past members. Just outside the clubhouse is a chained-off area with the names of deceased Riders etched into brick. Some have their ashes under those bricks.
The Capital City Riders have been in Madison for 52 years. They plan to be here for at least 52 more.
“As the older guys fade away, the new guys will be the ones taking over,” Lavasseur said. “Things do change, but some things stay the same.”